Student-athletes reach beyond borders

Graphic by Erin Jackel/The News

Jonathan Ferris
Staff writer

Murray State faculty and students spent weeks trying to convince Dick Vitale to come to a basketball game here in Murray. If it was so hard to get Dickie V. to drive down for a night in his tricked out coach bus, imagine trying to convince an international athlete to leave their home for years at a time to play on a sports team and live in dorms in a small Kentucky town.

Murray State coaches have recruited foreign athletes for years now, and while the most common sports for international athletes are tennis and soccer, the University has had international athletes play in more than 10 different varsity sports.

Right now, there are more than 20 international student-athletes from all six inhabitable continents. On the women’s soccer team alone are athletes from China, the Czech Republic, England, Ireland, Norway and Trinidad & Tobago.

Some of these athletes are recruited to Murray directly from their home countries, while others come to America before their college career in search of education and opportunities to play their respective sports.

Jenelle Cunningham, junior defender on the women’s soccer team, came to America from her native Trinidad & Tobago when she was 15 years old. She attended a high school in New York to play soccer and get a good education. It was during her senior year at Victory Christian Academy that Head Coach Beth Acreman offered Cunningham a scholarship to play soccer at Murray State.

“The biggest change aside from the weather, was just the difference in people,” Cunningham said. “Everyone I had lived with was Trinidadian so I had been around the same kind of people with the same culture, the same food, just the same vibes for my whole life. It wasn’t that huge of a change, but just everything here is on a much bigger scale.”

The athletes sometimes don’t get home for one or two years at a time, which they say can be a huge challenge when there is family back home.

“I got to go home this past Christmas for the first time in over a year,” Cunningham said. “Going home was really good because it had been so long. The best part was seeing my 2-year-old baby brother. I spent a lot of time with him and it was really cool getting to see him for the first time in over a year.”

While the time away from home poses immense challenges, international athletes often turn to teammates to get through times of homesickness.

“It’s like having an American family here which makes the transition a lot easier,” Cunningham said. “You already have friends when you get here and throughout the season you just grow closer to each other because you spend every single day together. I practically have 21 other sisters on my team so that’s actually one of the easiest parts of being an international athlete.”

Often, playing sports in America can change an athlete’s outlook on his or her own sport.

“Coming to America has made me a lot more competitive,” Cunningham said. “In Trinidad the competition is tough, but it’s not as organized and people don’t always give their best all the time. Here everybody goes hard every day and gives 100 percent all the time and it’s really made me better.”

While these athletes who have come from all over the world only stay here for four or five years, they take the Murray State name with them back to their homes on six different continents and more than 10 different countries.

Cunningham said she plans to look for a job when her time at Murray is over. She would like to stay and work in the U.S. but may return to her home in Trinidad.

While every athlete that comes to the University ends up on a different course after their time is finished, Murray State brings athletes from all over the world to rural Kentucky. These athletes bring with them their own unique cultures, skills and abilities, infusing a bit of much needed diversity into small town America.